This winter, with a full season under our belts, we were better prepared than ever to get started. Our initial trips were perfectly timed, just as birds arrived on the wintering grounds. Everything was going our way! However, almost immediately, the weather took a turn for the worse. High winds have battered the Lithuanian coast, and prevented fishermen (and us!) from getting to sea. In fact, some of the small boat owners haven’t been to sea for at least 2 and a half months. Even when the wind has let up for a brief 24 hour window, this has not provided fishermen with enough time to deploy and haul the gear. More so in fishing than in many other jobs, the weather is the real master of your destiny!
In spite of this, we have been able to get out on some trips with the fishermen. As some of the larger vessels are able to operate in the stronger winds, we conducted net panel trials on these boats. Small numbers of Velvet Scoters and Red-throated Divers were caught in both control and modified nets. Perhaps more notably, this year we have been able to collect some additional bycatch data from the Smelt fishery, which uses a much smaller mesh size. In this fishery, we recorded larger numbers of birds, including Red-throated Divers, Velvet and Common Scoters.
While waiting for the weather to improve, we have been able to conduct bird counts in the key wintering areas for Velvet Scoter. In mid-November, the total counted was around 11,000 birds (an amazing spectacle!), largely distributed in waters of 7-15 m depth. Such information on bird distribution helps us to target key areas for fieldwork.
The other bit of bad weather work we’ve been able to do is order fishing lights from China! While these are normally used to attract fish in longline fisheries, we are hoping to conduct a preliminary trial of them in Lithuania (on a smaller scale than the work in Poland) to see if they might have a role in reducing seabird bycatch here. Watch this space!
There are several months of potential data collection ahead, both in winter and in spring as several species pass through the Baltic on migration. Please cross your fingers for improved weather conditions so that we can get some conclusive answers on seabird bycatch mitigation!